In March 13, 1976, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm delivered a sermon titled, The Jewish Naiveté: A Purim Story All Year. Many of the ideas below are based on that sermon. All I’ve really added is an update.
I’d like to warmly welcome the middle school girls of Berman Academy to our shul, it’s great to have you back. I have a question for you, a parsha question that I’d like you to answer, you know, just to prove to everyone how good of a school Berman Academy really is. Are you ready?
Okay, is Eisav a good guy or a bad guy?
Too easy, right? Well, the truth is, it’s not that simple. Because, I’m not going to put you girls on the spot again, but where in the Torah does it actually say that he was not a good person?
Explicitly, the Torah only states that he’s a hunter, that he had a lot of hair, and that Rivkah for unspecified reasons thought him to be unworthy of the blessings of Yitzchak, but nowhere does it say that he was evil. To the point that a few years ago, a parent of a child who was attending Montessori school complained, “Why are the teachers in the school depicting Eisav as a rasha, if the Torah doesn’t say so explicitly?”
This parent was right but he was also wrong. Because although the regular Torah readings do not state that Eisav was evil, in the Haftorah that we read today, G-d does say quite clearly, “V’et Eisav soneiti, I hate Eisav.” Those are pretty strong and rather clear words. So yes, the parent was right, the five books of Moshe don’t say that Eisav was evil, but the Haftorah most certainly does.
Which just goes to show you that you do miss out by going to the Kiddush club…
But why? Why does the Torah not pass judgment on Eisav throughout these parshiyos, and wait until the prophets to let us know that he was evil. Why does the Torah only hint, but never say explicitly that Eisav was a no-goodnik, like you girls correctly suggested?
And I would suggest that perhaps the Torah is teaching us a profound lesson. Perhaps the Torah is teaching us to not pass judgment immediately. To recognize that even an Eisav can make some mistakes but ultimately, he can redeem himself. He can change. And so the Torah, as it describes his various deeds as they are happening, deeds that can be interpreted positively, neutrally, and negatively, as it happens the Torah never passes judgment.
After he dies, after we see the sum total of his life, after we see what messages and what ethos he passed to the next generation, then it is appropriate for the Torah tell us that this man was evil. Because History eventually does decide who was righteous and who was evil, who had a positive effect on the world and who had a negative one.
But of course this leaves us with a challenge; how do we interact with the Eisav’s of the world until we figure them out? Okay, don’t pass judgment, but some people are bad, and how do we protect ourselves from the Eisav’s of the world while they live?
So let’s jump to a scene that we’ll read in two weeks which is rather instructive. It is one of the most suspense-filled and emotionally-charged narratives of the Torah; Eisav and Yakov, who haven’t seen each other in years are going to meet. We don’t know if Eisav still holds a grudge, we don’t know if Yakov will kill Eisav in self-defense, we don’t know how Yakov will respond if Eisav chooses to make peace, we don’t know anything. And when they finally meet, the Torah tells us that they embrace each other – beautiful. But then it says, vayishakei’hu, what does that mean? (Berman Academy Girls?)
Vayishakeihu means that he kissed him. When they meet after all these years, when they finally reconcile, Yakov knows Eisav, Yakov knows that Eisav is complicated, he’s not necessarily evil, but he ain’t a good guy, and so Yakov hugs his brother, but he never kisses him.
And you know what Yakov is teaching us with that subtle gesture, by hugging and not kissing? He’s teaching us to not be naïve. Because amazingly, throughout Jewish history, we have been ever so naïve, time and time again.
Allow me to read to you an excerpt from a memoir by Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung, former chief rabbi of Montreal, describing the mindset of his fellow townspeople before World War Two:
“Dukla Jews (Dukla was his hometown in Poland) found solace in telling themselves that there would be no war; that Hitler was conducting a war of nerves; that Hitler was in fact not prepared for war; that he was only making threats to win concessions; that he would end up getting trouble, not concessions! For months there had been rumours of war. Nonetheless, as long as the Jews held on to the hope that there would be no war, and as long as both the Yiddish and Polish press were filled with opinion pieces that minimized the military might of the Germans, they could breathe more easily.”
Or take Marxism, whether it’s Communism or Socialism – there are those who in their innocence thought, and still those who think, that Marxism and Judaism have a natural alliance. And yet, when you read the literature of its founders, Marx and Engels, for instance, who considered the Jews “the filthiest of all races,” and accused Jews of nothing less than robbing churches, burning villages, and beating innocent Poles to death. Engels wrote that Jews are “the full embodiment of profiteering, miserliness, and filth.” Marx equated “abolishing the essence of Jewry” with “abolishing the inhumanity of today’s practice of life.” In his old age, the same Marx — who was also an anti-Black racist — wrote of his resort hotel complaining: “too many Jews and fleas.”
But instead of being a little skeptical, instead of questioning, too many Jews, Jews in Russia, Jews in Israel, and Jews in the United States, saw Stalin as the Messiah, and the answer to all Jewish problems, when instead he was its biggest problem.
Embrace, Yakov taught us, but never kiss. Don’t be naïve. Yes, there’s room for optimism and for being positive, but don’t allow that to blind you.
And yet, there is so much all-out acceptance, all-out endorsements; so much naiveté. It’s naive for some world leaders, including Canadian Prime minister, Justin Trudeau to idealize Fidel Castro, when he deserves anything but. It was naïve for Jews to worship FDR and refuse to acknowledge his anti-Semitism. And it’s naïve to view our current president-elect without any reservations.
Look, I could understand why people voted for him, whether for the future of the Supreme Court, whether it was simply because they couldn’t trust Mrs. Clinton, or for other political reasons, but to so to speak, hug and kiss him, to ignore the disgusting comments, to not at least be concerned about worrisome views of people close to him, that’s not what we do. History has taught us otherwise.
Will he be great for the economy? Will he be great for the Jews? Will he even be great for minorities? I think it’s actually quite possible that he will be, but like our forefather Yakov tried to teach us, we hug. That’s where it ends. Some level of apprehension is always appropriate, certainly when there’s reason for concern.
And this lesson is not just about people, it’s about movements. Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Churchill was a wise man. Thank G-d for democracy! As Jews and as humans there is no greater form of government! But, while we embrace this glorious and wonderful country, while we should be as patriotic as can be, we hug, we do not kiss.
Because, is the pursuit of happiness a Jewish ideal, or even a healthy ideal? Is consumerism something that we fully endorse? Is every ruling in the Supreme Court something that we by definition can be proud of?
We hug – we pray for the welfare of the State, we serve and applaud those who serve, we pay our taxes, we are grateful, we are patriotic. But we do not kiss – we learn from Yakov, we learn from history, that there is room for reservations.
It’s not coincidental that it is Yakov who teaches us this lesson. He is described in his youth as an ish tam, as simple, innocent, and perhaps even naive. But as he gets older, as he learns to struggle, he battles man, he battles angels, he sees good, he sees evil, and he recognizes how incredibly complicated the world is. And we, like him, must struggle with ambiguity, with uncertainty, with a confusion of good and evil. But Jacob’s struggle eventually comes to an end. He wrestles with the angel ad alot hashachar, until the sun rises. And we are taught that we too will struggle but there will be an end to the struggle, at a time when G-d’s light will shine all over the world. And at that time, as the veils of confusion fall to the wayside, we will not only hug the world, but in its perfect and redeemed state, we will kiss and fully-embrace it.